Heading away from bustling Oxford Street, one must not be influenced by the inauspicious exterior, as here lies a lesser-known national museum gem of The Wallace Collection…..
A bit of context goes a long way……
When we think London and museums, we naturally gravitate to the titans that are The British Museum, The V&A, and other established landmarks. Imagine my surprise, when buried in an email from a colleague, it was suggested I take a visit to The Wallace Collection, which was only a few hops on the tube, yet so far unbeknown to me. After a few weeks of procrastination, I finally earmarked a Sunday afternoon in which to discover its secrets.
The Wallace Collection exhibits paintings, antique furniture, and military artefacts, all finely assembled in Hertford House, the latter of which was the home of the four Marquesses of Hertford. The origins of the collection have its roots across the generations, but it was the son of the 4th Marquess, Sir Richard Wallace, who ultimately provided public access to this diverse set of antique artefacts upon his death. Over the decades, the museum has gone through extensive renovations, and a serious attempt has been made to re-capture the original atmosphere and décor.
What to expect……
It’s no understatement to say that my grasp of London geography somewhat equals asking a chimpanzee to explain the basics of quantum physics. So after departing Oxford Street tube station, thinking that I had a bit of a trek in front of me, I swiftly punched in my details into my new-acquired Uber app and waited for my carriage to arrive. I had just got myself settled into the back and began busying myself with my notes, when we arrived before the driver had even broken a sweat. Not realising quite how close it was from the tube station, and it being a lovely day outside where most people would welcome the walk, I mumbled something pathetic about “not really knowing how close things where” and duly stepped out, leaving a rather bewildered driver to muse on the ‘laziness of some people’.
As I looked at the building exterior, I remember feeling slightly underwhelmed. After interrogating the website, where you are presented with an orgy of visual opulence, I almost expected gold cladding on the building, and a bed of rose petals and gold chocolate buttons to lead the way. Alas, there was nothing remotely enticing, but just the circular driveway leading you in.
Upon entering, the reception hostess perfectly balanced the script of the introduction to the glossy brochures laid in front of me, whilst not quite managing to hide the deep misery of being locked inside on such a glorious afternoon. After much deliberation between a £20 A4 catalogue and a £7 A5 guidebook, I decided to embrace austerity and purchase the cheaper alternative to accompany me around. This little chap was incredible value for money, which included a concise history of the collection, high-gloss pictorials of the house, and a detailed narrative of the historical usage of each room in question.
As soon as I headed through the double-doors on the ground floor, you are greeted with a gorgeous grand staircase, which leads you up to the second and final level. Each room is exquisitely designed, with its meticulous detail, the elegance hits you immediately. One cannot help admire the warmness each room imbues. As I have always been drawn to colour, the inviting sensations of reds, golds, yellows, and greens promotes a wonderful feeling of serenity.
As you navigate through the rooms, the opulent chandeliers, and the intricate mosaics on borders and high decorated ceilings, reinforce the grand sense of scale. Each room is a portal through time, and distinctly decorated and themed.
There are a vast array of paintings, containing portraits, allegories (paintings that contain visual metaphors relating to characters, places or events), and some magnificent mythological representations by Francois Boucher. Other notable artists on display are Sir Thomas Gainsborough (a notable English portrait and landscape painter), Sir Joshua Reynolds (the first President of the Royal Academy), Hals (responsible for The Laughing Cavalier), Rembrandt, and one of my personal favourites Titian. Having recently spent some time studying the Venetian Renaissance, the Venice room for me was very impressive, with the Canaletto pieces being a particular standout.
Aside from paintings, there is porcelain, sumptuous furniture, gold boxes, and a dedicated room which exhibit a vast array of arms & armoury, alongside medieval and Renaissance objects. This, I found, is one of the most appealing factors of the museum. The diversity of artefacts really does help keep it visually interesting, and for those not deeply familiar, is enough to provide continued interest for a couple of hours.
The essentials: prices and standards……
Entrance to the museum is free, although you are subtly encouraged to make donations via the cash-drops, or the gift shop. Make no mistake, the term ‘gift shop’ is a euphemism for capitalism at its best, so bring your wallet! There are both audio tours, and pre-arranged talks where you can pay a modest fee and walk around the museum and be truly enlightened. In my best stealth form, I did ‘shadow’ a tour group around a couple of rooms, and the orator seemed very well versed in her subject-matter, and between phrases of ‘Marianne Antoinette’, there was lots of enthusiastic head-bobbing.
I wanted to finish with a brief comment for the restaurant, which was a particular high-point for me. It sits in the centre of the museum, under a glass ceiling which gives the complete impression of alfresco dining and has a wonderfully airy and open feel about it. It provides afternoon tea, a simple yet comprehensive menu, and a modest wine-by-the-glass list. It is well worth spending an hour to just give you enough time to practice which soundbites you will replay to your friends at home, to ensure complete satisfaction that you have mastered all there is about this wonderfully diverse collection.
For a non-regular museum-goer, this is a perfect way to spend an interesting couple of hours, without feeling obliged to stand-and-stare at each item. As I breezed through the rooms alongside the modestly sized crowd, I felt this unassuming cultural icon embracing me, and as I departed, it left me feeling a sense of chaste excitement for my next visit….